Named for the polo club that its founder, Paul Butler, had organized in 1922, Oak Brook is one of Chicago's youngest suburbs, although it doesn't fit most people's definition of a suburb. It does not have a downtown, Main Street or high school. It does have more than its share of hotels, highways and corporate campuses.
Still, the western suburb thrives on a sense of community.
Oak Brook residents say they see their neighbors at the village's tennis courts or swimming pools; at the mall that shares the village's name, or on the miles of walking trails that connect the open space that—despite its commercial growth—Oak Brook has preserved.
For Oak Brook's 9,000 residents, the upside of sharing their hometown with the 90,000 people who come here daily to work, plus the thousands who arrive to shop or dine, is lower tax bills. They pay no municipal taxes, so the real estate tax bill for a house that recently sold for $500,000, for example, is $5,600 a year.
Although Oak Brook residents live in a collection of disconnected subdivisions, that suits professionals who appreciate the privacy they afford.
"Professionals, including lots of physicians, who work downtown or in other suburbs," describes buyers of Oak Brook houses, says Bob Briant of Re/Max Elite in Hinsdale. "They can get on a highway in any direction and get to work quickly."
Buyers typically request one subdivision, Briant reports. "They want one of the gated ones, the one with a pool and tennis courts or the one with the biggest lots," he says. "Each has different characteristics."
Oak Brook is split between eight school districts. The neighborhoods that feed into Brook Forest Elementary School, where scores are so high and classes are so small that residents liken it to a private school, are in the greatest demand, Realtors report. Other elementary schoolchildren go to school in several neighboring towns. For high school, Oak Brook kids are split between Hinsdale Central High School, Downers Grove North High School, York Community High School and Willowbrook High School.
"We chose our neighborhood for its schools," says Maria Sclafani, mother of three young children. "And, because we can each get to work in less than a half hour." She and her husband, Michael, are building a 5,500-square-foot house in Trinity Lakes, which is one of the neighborhoods that attends the coveted Brook Forest. They have lived in Oak Brook since 1997, but this is their first new house.
Oak Brook is chummy within the subdivisions, Sclafani says. "Everyone knows everyone in the neighborhood and at the school."
Laura and Bob McKinney just bought their second house in Oak Brook, a 1978 ranch that they are gutting. "We're giving it a more open floor plan and taller ceilings," says Laura.
"We love it here. Each neighborhood is its own community with an active homeowners' association and lots of things to do," says Laura. "It's a town where people get involved in charity, sports and social groups. You see your neighbors at the library or at the health club.
"It's diverse racially—people would be surprised how much—has good schools, big lots and open land. When I run every morning, I see deer and other wildlife."
Without leaving town, Oak Brook residents can partake in sports at the village-owned Sports Core or park district facilities. The Core, as residents refer to it, includes tennis courts, a swimming pool, wading pool, golf course, driving range and the polo field that put Oak Brook on the map. The park district owns the Family Recreation Center, which includes an aquatic center, fitness club, basketball courts and indoor running track, plus the Racquet Club, which has tennis and handball courts, saunas and whirlpools.
History buffs frequent Mayslake Forest Preserve, which includes the 39-room mansion built by the Peabody family, and the 1852 Graue Mill and Museum, a National Historic Landmark and the only operating waterwheel gristmill in Illinois. In the 1800s, the mill's location on Salt Creek, a tributary of the Des Plaines River, helped make it an ideal "station" along the Underground Railroad.
While other suburbs head to Main Street for community festivals, Oak Brook residents look to the mall. Oakbrook Center hosts such events as the Invitational Fine Art Exhibition each Labor day weekend and the Invitational Fine Craft Exhibition each July. Last November, a Christkindlmarket was held.
Oak Brook celebrates Independence Day a day early at its polo field with fireworks and the Taste of Oak Brook. Other village-sponsored events include the Autumn Festival each September.
Many Oak Brook residents have only minutes-long commutes to its larger employers, which include McDonald's Corp., Federal Signal Corp., Advocate Health Care, Ace Hardware, Blistex Inc. and Inland Real Estate Corp. Others head to the Loop, which takes a half hour by car or by train from Elmhurst or Hinsdale. Or, they head north, west or south on the highways that crisscross Oak Brook.
Because of its central location, many of Oak Brook's residents choose to stay here after they retire. That includes the village president, John Craig, and his wife, Connie, who have lived here since 1987. "You can get to O'Hare, Midway or downtown quickly," says Craig, a retired police officer and teacher. "We moved here for good schools for our daughter, but we're staying here even though she's grown up."
Oak Brook's long-term plans are to stay the course, for the most part. Its agenda focuses on redevelopment of areas that are starting to look their age, such as 22nd Street, where the Oak Brook Promenade offers a collection of new retailers.
Oak Brook is built out, so the only new houses here are on teardown sites (75 in the last five years) or the occasional dividing of a large estate. The latter includes a 31/2-acre parcel on 31st Street that has been divided into five lots by Naperville-based Frank Paul Development Corp. Their price tags range from $750,000 to $800,000.
"Paul Butler turned a vision into one of the most remarkable real estate developments this country has ever seen," gushes a 1961 brochure promoting Oak Brook. Since then, the highways have added lanes, the mall has added stores and the population has maxed out. But the essence of the Oak Brook that Butler planned hasn't changed. Oak Brook is still a town that's as bustling by day as it is peaceful by night.